Elmer was a hospice client. I called him my “Hospice Poster Child” because he wasn’t ‘your ordinary hospice client.’ You might be wondering, “what is an ordinary hospice client like?” Ordinarily, a hospice client is under our care for a very short period of time. In fact, the median length of stay for a hospice client is only 17 days. Elmer’s length of stay was about 825 days (just over two years).
Elmer was an unbelievably upbeat 60-some year old man. He had lung problems and also suffered from congestive heart failure. Yet, he smiled a lot. He was ever so appreciative of all the people who worked so hard to ease his life a bit. About hospice Elmer once said, “Hospice takes away the fear, as well as the pain.”
There were other ways that Elmer was not an ordinary hospice client. Once he told me that when Dr. Classen, our hospice medical director, first met with him, he decided that he didn’t want to just “lie in bed and wait to die.” He credits her and our hospice team for motivating him to pursue personal goals and live his last days (which turned into years) to the fullest, but while they do deserve some credit, we all agree without hesitation that we were in fact more blessed to have Elmer in our lives than he was to have our hospice team in his.
Elmer’s “family” was not related to him. He lived with a friend who was a schoolmate from the 1950s when they both went to Scotland School for Veterans Children. That friend Jere and his wife Linda had opened their home to care for Elmer in his final days. Jere sang at Elmer’s funeral and it was beautiful. Before he started he told all of us that Elmer had asked him to sing this special song at his funeral and that it was the hardest thing that anyone had ever asked him to do. He also said that he didn’t know if he could make it through the song without breaking up but he did it.
One of Elmer’s goals was to travel to Vermont to visit another friend Bob, with whom he had worked years ago at the Pinkerton Security agency in California. Jere drove him to Dulles airport for the direct flight to Burlington. Hospice made all of the arrangements for oxygen and wheelchairs and with United Airlines to be sure that he was well cared for and checked in with him during his trip.
Bob came all the way from Vermont for Elmer’s funeral. He got up and said a few words. He made a gesture with his thumb and forefinger to indicate a tiny amount of something and said, “Some of you only got to know this much of Elmer, but that’s all you need to know of him to have been touched.” I heard a lot of sniffles at that moment because we all had been touched.
Actually, not much crying went on at Elmer’s funeral. Sure, I, like others sniffled here and there, but it wasn’t because we were sad that Elmer died. Surely we will all miss him but we knew he went to a happy place, where he no longer must pull an oxygen tank behind him and for which he was well prepared. At least for me, most of my tears were from the tremendous gratitude that I felt for having known him and what I learned from him. And I only knew him a tiny bit.
Elmer also traveled to California with the help of hospice. Then he traveled to Annapolis. He was a hospice volunteer, spending many hours helping with various office related tasks. I loved coming to work and seeing his bright smile. He made MY day on many occasions.
More of our tears were from laughter than sadness at Elmer’s funeral. Many stood up and spoke about their individual experiences with Elmer. Many were humorous, most were touching. A lot of heads nodded in agreement as if to say, “I know what you mean!” Our hospice chaplain spent “off duty” time every Thursday to take Elmer to his favorite coffee shop in Greencastle. One of our volunteers took “the long way home” on most occasions when providing transportation for Elmer, so he could spend extra time enjoying his company.
Please don’t misunderstand me: all of our hospice clients are special in our eyes and we love them all. But why do I call Elmer my “Hospice Poster Child?” Because he represented what hospice is really about. It’s not about dying, it’s about living! I wish that everyone could have known Elmer and learned from him what hospice is all about and lose that negative stigma that one only loses after having experienced it. While I know that it is not possible, I wish that we could have all of our clients for 825 days so that we could do more for them and help them live their final days. When he returned from his trip to California, Elmer told me, “When I told a lady sitting next to me on the plane that I am a hospice client, she looked at me with surprise that I was all by myself and said, ‘Hospice is a scary word.’ Well I straightened her out in a hurry. I told her that hospice is a helpful and a hopeful word. Just think of me!”